Below is an audio link to the sermon by The Rev. Posey Krakowsky on Maundy Thursday.
Church of the Ascension
April 18, 2019
John 13:1-17, 31b-35
This past few weeks have been difficult ones for me personally, as some of you know. The weekend of Lent 5, my husband and I flew to California for an event honoring my first cousin, Fall Ferguson, who died unexpectedly in late March. The trip was difficult for many reasons, most obviously, the profound sadness of losing a cousin who was an engaging, vibrant, and de-lightfully honest and caring person. Then as one would expect, there was also a significant amount of mishigas in dealing with extended and close family, particularly in these fraught politi-cal times. And lastly— and this is going to sound strange to say it — what really struck me hard was something I did not anticipate — a profound sense of disorientation because there was al-most no ritual involved in the marking of my cousin’s death. The central event, as it were, and I say that because it was pointedly NOT referred to as a funeral, was called “A Celebration of Life.” It took place in a rented space in a public building. A pre-determined group of people were invited up to speak about Fall and remember her — and that was lovely, especially because eve-rything they said was true — no one had to — how shall I say this? — embellish or stretch the truth to say good things about her.
But there was no body. There were no ashes. There was no overt evidence of her physical being except for several posters with photos of her throughout her life. No prayers from any religious or spiritual tradition were said. There were no candles. There wasn’t even music. One younger cousin wrote a poem about Fall, and that was lovely, but it was exactly that, a poem about Fall. No existential questions were asked or wrestled with. The best way I can describe it is that the whole event was extremely nice.
Please do not misunderstand me — I am not saying that our Episcopal services are the only way that funerals should be conducted. Nor am I criticizing my family for the way this was done. They put together an event that felt right to them, and presumedly, one that my cousin would have wanted.
And yet, it distressed me that the fact of her death was not more overtly acknowledged. It was understood, of course; Why else would we be there? But it felt as if this format was saying that actually expressing and wrestling with that reality — the reality of her death, and by extension, the reality of our own mortality, was not necessary. And I was a bit floored by that. I’ve been try-ing to make sense of why it affected me so strongly ever since.
One of the gifts of that recent experience is that it got me thinking about the meaning and place of ritual in our lives — what it does for us and how vital it is. It also made me think about how ab-sent ritual is from so much of modern Western life — and how strange all of us in this room are — we Christians. And even more so, we liturgical Christians, who are right now in the middle of this most holy week — a week soaked in rituals that allow us to wrestle with and hold in tension so many emotions: wonder, sorrow, loss, joy, tenderness, cruelty, passion, indifference, friend-ship, betrayal, attachment, abandonment, utter desolation, and exuberant joy. And that’s to name just a few! But I’m here to tell you folks, to our friends and neighbors in the 21st century — when “spiritual but not religious culture” vies with various stripes of fundamentalism to have the loudest voice: — we are weird. We really are. Spending time with my extended family, whenever I would bring up something that has to do with my liturgical life as a priest, there would be puzzled confusion and looks of astonishment, accompanied by a strong subtext of “wait, you actually take that stuff seriously? I mean, who does that anymore?”
One of the beautiful things about the Gospel of John is that John helps us see how well Jesus understood the human need for ritual. How important it is to allow ourselves to use our bodies to express the feelings deep in our hearts — feelings which go beyond what words can adequately express. John tells us over and over how tenderly Jesus prepared his disciples for what was to come — how he foreshadowed his own death and resurrection through the raising of Lazarus, how he connected both Mary’s anointing him with nard to his own burial and Mary’s washing of his feet by washing the feet of the disciples on this night. And how Jesus later allowed Thomas to literally stick his fingers into the wound in his side — to touch and feel that his resurrected flesh was real, leaving a foreshadowing marker for us, to teach us that we too connect with his own flesh every time we use our touch to comfort and heal others because when we do so, we are also literally touching the Body of Christ.
Jesus used embodied rituals to help the disciples process the conflicting, confusing, inexplicable times they were facing — those same confusing, conflicting and inexplicable times that we face right now. Because every time in history is a conflicted and inexplicable time. To be human is to be in confusion. To be human is to live with the tension of holding more than one emotion in one’s heart at any given time. To be human is to seek and to find, to bind and to loose, to dance through every time and purpose and season under heaven, often with no idea where we are go-ing or why, but just knowing, like Abram leaving the land of the Chaldeans, like Moses turning aside to see the burning bush, like the Israelites escaping Egypt to the wilderness, that we are called and we must GO. Through all of this — through all of the tension and confusion, Jesus asks us to love one another as he loved us. To use our bodies to feel God’s love for us, and to allow it to flow out of us to others. To not only receive, but also to be The Body of Christ.
I give you a new commandment, Jesus says, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34-35)
There’s a reason this commandment, the mandate which gives Maundy Thursday its name, is spoken right after he has washed their feet. Jesus doesn’t just say it — Jesus shows it — Jesus embodies it — just as he does when he institutes the eucharist using the words on our reredos: DO this in remembrance of me. Not “say” this, not “think” this, not “pray” this, but DO this. Jesus shows us by example that love is more than words — that love goes beyond what words can ever adequately express— that work, that action — is love made present and real.
When I was in the Holy Land, one of the places we were taken to pray was the Church of Peter Gallicantu, the site of Caiaphas’s house. Christian tradition from the Byzantine era tells us that this is where Jesus was held and kept overnight after he was arrested in the Garden of Geth-semane. It is called Peter Gallicantu, because it is also believed to be where Peter betrayed Je-sus three times before the cock crowed. We went deep down into the holding cell where prison-ers were kept — there is a staircase now, but back then, a prisoner would have been lowered into it by a rope tied around the waist. It was a long way down, and there was no way out except to be lifted back up by the same method. Cold, dark, and made entirely of stone — like a tomb. The only light came from the opening up above — much too high to reach — where a guard could look down and check on the prisoner.
Was Jesus actually in this place? Who knows? But all three synoptic gospels tell us that he was incarcerated by an oppressive, merciless, and murderous penal system for that one night before his trial and crucifixion. Locked up in places with little hope of release. Like the millions we incar-cerate in the US right now. Like the thousands of asylum seekers we detain at our borders.
Only a few hours before, Jesus had been at supper with his closest friends, eating and drinking with those he loved, washing their feet, tenderly cradling those constantly pounded parts of their bodies with his own hands, and then toweling them off. Hearing them tell him that they would never abandon him.
What must he have felt sitting there in the dark, alone, awaiting trial — knowing that he was likely to die the next day?
In John’s gospel, the Christology is so high, that we do not hear any doubts or worry on Jesus’ part. Fortunately, we heard that remarkable rendition of Luke’s Passion narrative last Sunday, because in Luke’s version we hear about his anguish and doubt in the Garden, when the drops of his sweat were so large that they were like blood falling to the ground. All three of the synoptic gospels remind us that Jesus did feel fear and anxiety — that he was fully human, and fright-ened, just as we so often are.
When our pilgrimage group was down in the pit at the Church of Peter Gallicantu, we read Psalm 88.
“My soul is surfeited with troubles, I am counted among those who go down to the Pit,
I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave. You have caused my companions to shun me, you have made me a thing of horror to them. I am shut in so that I cannot escape; every day I call upon you, O Lord.” (Psalm 88: 3-9)
How did Jesus soothe himself in that darkness? How did he call upon God? What embodied practices did he use to calm his terror? Certainly, he prayed. Did he also breathe intentionally deeply and slowly? Did he sing the Psalms, the beloved hymns he surely knew by heart since childhood? Did his body ache from the beatings he had already received? Were there ropes or chains on his ankles that hobbled his feet? Did he cradle those feet and imagine the feel of Mary’s hands and hair and tears on them? Did he shut out the smell of the dank prison by re-membering the perfume of the nard she used? Did he also remember the feel of his beloved friends’ feet in his own hands, just a few hours before? Did he remind himself of the trust they placed in him to let them wash their feet? To allow themselves to be vulnerable in that particular way? Did that help him to remember through his own body his deep trust in God?
Of course we will never know. But we can imagine. And we can allow ourselves to also imagine the terror and the panic and to remember ways in which we too have found comfort and felt God’s love through our bodies, even when our human companions have abandoned us because of their own fear.
Our embodied rituals — the sacred dance of our worship — connect us to God — to that which is greater than we are — in ways that words alone could never manage. Our bodies have wis-dom in them that speaks to our hearts in ways that words cannot express. Our ears can hear, our eyes can gaze, our noses can smell, our hands can touch, our skin can feel. The gift of ritual is that it’s not about intellectual assent to a set of statements. It’s about a way of knowing that goes deeper because it allows us to bring our whole selves, body, heart, and mind, to the table.
As we continue this Holy Week — moving forward tonight through the foot washing and stripping of the altar, into the veneration of the cross tomorrow, and then to the sacred Exodus journey of the Easter Vigil and the joy of Easter morning— can we give ourselves permission to soak it all in with our bodies? Can we allow it all to reverberate within us? Can we let our bodies — which are the Body of Christ — comfort and heal and transform our hearts?
In the words of Janet Morley, let us pray:
The bodies of grownups
Come with stretchmarks and scars,
Faces that have been lived in,
Relaxed breasts and bellies,
Backs that give trouble,
And well-worn feet:
Flesh that is particular,
And obviously mortal.
They also come
With bruises on their heart,
Wounds they can’t forget,
And each of them
A company of lovers in their soul
Who will never return
And cannot be erased.
And yet I think that there is a flood of beauty
Beyond the smoothness of youth;
And my heart aches for that grace of longing
That flows through bodies
No longer straining to be innocent,
But yearning for redemption.